Kindle users get Amazon offer for returned deleted books, gift certificates

While the distributor of several e-books was wrong to assume that the "classic" nature of certain titles allowed them to be sold under the public domain license, there's been considerable concern over Amazon's right to "undo" the sale of those titles through its electronic Kindle Store. Last July, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos issued a mea culpa, saying the unannounced deletion of various titles including George Orwell's 1984 was "stupid, thoughtless, and painfully out of line with our principles."

This morning, as first noted by Gizmodo's Rosa Golijan, individuals affected by Amazon's unannounced deletions are now receiving e-mails that appear to be from Amazon, offering customers the opportunity to the company to deliver legitimate copies of their books free of charge, or alternately to receive $30 gift certificates or refund checks from Amazon.

The e-mail as quoted there is curious as it only mentions 1984, which was not the only deleted title. Last June, the retailer deleted illegitimate copies of Ayn Rand novels, including Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and The Virtue of Selfishness, one month prior to the deletions of Orwell's novels also including Animal Farm. Amazon has yet to confirm the legitimacy of the e-mails now being trafficked around the Web, nor is there evidence of similar e-mails regarding other deleted titles than the one that generated the most controversy because of its irony.

Many blogs and a few YouTube videos poked fun at the irony of, as they put it, a distributor "burning" books about book burning from a device called Kindle. Though some were confusing the title in question with Ray Bradbury's classic Fahrenheit 451, others accurately invoked Orwell's metaphorical "memory hole," which in his novel was a depository for all modern literature deemed irrelevant to the maintenance of the state.

From a technical and legal standpoint, however, Amazon may have been within its rights to do what it did, although it certainly turned out to be politically inconvenient for the retailer. Some distributors have been operating under the mistaken belief that since book distribution contracts historically have pertained only to printed material, the rights to distribute works electronically are up in the air, "jump balls" -- this was part of Google's original defense of its Google Books scanning project.

But the electronic version of a book is software. On the one hand, that qualifies it for copyright protection as one of "any and all forms" of publication, under book publishers' contracts; on the other, it gives book publishers the right to determine how, or if, they will distribute a copyrighted work as software. So if someone does that job for them and Amazon facilitates the sale, Amazon could be liable for copyright infringement -- a punishment which certainly made the retraction of the book urgent.

How Amazon went about that task in this case was perhaps ill-advised, especially since owners of Kindle and other e-book readers think of their electronic libraries as sacrosanct as their printed ones. The notion that they are purchasing software -- essentially, the limited right to use media in electronic form, as prescribed by the distributor -- may conflict with their feelings of books as possessions, and their equation of e-books with books from a moral standpoint.

Writing last month on behalf of the Free Software Foundation, Harvard University Law Professor John Palfrey argued that even though e-books are software, they hold the same sacred place in readers' hearts and should be protected as such: "The level of control Amazon has over their e-books conflicts with basic freedoms that we take for granted. In a future where books are sold with digital restrictions, it will be impossible for libraries to guarantee free access to human knowledge."

But that's for the reader of classic novels. One of the most lucrative platforms for e-book publishing in recent years has been technology books, far more so in some cases than for classic literature. And as it turns out, in a recent survey of 2,000 e-book customers, as O'Reilly publisher Joe Wikert reported last week, 81% of respondents use laptop computers to read their O'Reilly downloads, versus 29% on the iPhone, 14% for the Amazon Kindle, and 11% for the Sony Reader.

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